Over four months on from their last game, Harrogate Town are back in action this Saturday, with Boreham Wood the visitors for their National League play-off semi-final (14:30 kick-off). By virtue of their 2nd-place finish (up from 6th in 2018/19), Simon Weaver’s side are already one step further than the stage they exited at last May. One of Weaver’s ‘new signings’ available for selection is a man who’s been a Town player for four years.
Back in the fold after loans at divisional rivals Stockport County and Stevenage in League Two, Joe Leesley is raring to play his part. The club have emerged as one of the most progressive non-league outfits in recent times, this week also announcing that admission and season-ticket prices are to be frozen for 2020/21. Their 26-year-old winger returns after his first taste of League football, and if he can help the club he’s become most strongly associated with get there for the first time, it would be a fairytale end to the most bizarre of seasons.
Firstly Joe, an exciting game for everyone to be involved in this weekend, but how sharp do you feel? How sharp can you feel after no competitive games for a good while?
I know it sounds daft but I think the lads actually feel fitter almost, in the sense of you’ve been locked away for months, and as a sportsperson or an athlete, there’s only so much you can do, and I think a lot of your time’s taken up by walking, running, if you’re lucky enough to have a few weights at your house. That’s all you’ve been doing really, so a lot of the boys have come back a lot fitter than when they’d usually return to pre-season, because they’ve not had the luxury of a holiday and stuff. I don’t know how much of the sharpness with the ball you’ll be able to replicate, with what games bring you, but certainly aerobic-wise, the lads have come back in superb nick really and absolutely crushed the times that we normally go through in a normal pre-season.
Have you had any behind-closed-doors matches, or just games against each other as a squad?
We’ve not had an 11-v-11 against another team; we’ve done a lot behind closed doors with the squad that we’ve got. Again, probably only time will tell on that one. Some people say you need a friendly, some people say you’re risking injury, stuff like that. Like I say, I don’t think it’s really bothered us as a group. I think we’ve quite enjoyed the training that the gaffer and Thirs (assistant Paul Thirlwell) have put on, and I think everyone feels really ready to go and smash Saturday really.
Have you had any conversations with Simon since you came back, after being away from the club, obviously with the loans but then lockdown as well?
Yeah, to be fair, me and the gaffer have got a great relationship; I’ve been at the club some years now. The reasons of my loans this season were purely because I’m a player that likes to try and play 90 minutes every week, and at the stage of the season when I left Harrogate, I couldn’t get that guaranteed to me. So I went away, tried to get some games, and coming back, it’s like I’ve never been away really. We’ve both got on with each other really well and I’ve given it everything I can in training. I know it’s gonna be difficult for me to try and edge my way back into that starting 11, because the boys have done really, really well this season and deserved their places, but I don’t think I could have done any more in training. I’ve gone back really fit and I think I’m definitely knocking on his door to hopefully get a chance to help the boys get over the line.
— Harrogate Town AFC (@HarrogateTown) August 3, 2019
You mention going out to get games, but were they loans with the view to you possibly moving on fully, or more so to get action in the here and now before then linking back up with Harrogate?
I’m really fond of the club and I think at the time it was ‘we’ve got a player who’s not playing games, and he wants to play games’, and it was beneficial for both if I was out playing football and doing well. That’s all it really was; ‘go out, get some games, when your loan’s up, we’ll discuss then.’ If there was a chance to go back and get some games at Harrogate, that would have been brilliant. As it was, I was heading back from Stockport to Harrogate to fight for my place, and then obviously the opportunity to go and play in the Football League came. It was something I’d never done and it kind of diverted me to Stevenage. I loved my time there, I learned a heck of a lot, as a person and as a player. Ultimately, when you go out on loan, it’s to get some games and some minutes under your belt to try and get back into the team, but also, you’re putting yourself in a shop window to do well, aren’t you? As a footballer, I know as selfish as it sounds, you just want to do well personally as well.
So, two moves there, did you have two initiation songs to do? Or did you manage to dodge at least one?!
I thought I was getting away with the Stockport one, because I was lucky enough to sign and we had a run of home games, so I was about six weeks in! I didn’t get away with it, I did have to sing. Then at Stevenage, the boys made sure that I was straight up on the first away game. I like to sing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ (Bill Withers); it’s a bit of my karaoke song. I’m not a terrible singer so I try to give it a little bit of something! It got me out of jail a couple of times.
Which group gave you the best reaction?
At Stevenage, I think when I started singing, Paul Farman, the goalkeeper, stood up and took his top off and started swinging it around, so I think that was quite a good reaction!
In terms of these last few months, were you down south when everything came to a halt, and you then had to head back north and set up camp back home? What was the situation?
We’d kind of got a sniff that something was going on, the government was putting little things out, but we were still travelling to Stevenage in a car school. I stayed a couple of nights in a hotel and a couple of nights it was there and back, because my girlfriend’s pregnant. How it all really came about was we just trained one day, finished training, and (Stevenage boss) Alex Revell said ‘listen lads, I think the game’s gonna be off Saturday.’ So it was kind of ‘go home, here’s a little programme, take your runners, your boots etc. so you can do some stuff at home, and we’ll be in touch as soon as we know.’ We went home, and I spoke to Simon Weaver straight away, because I didn’t know if the season was extended was I then staying at Stevenage or going back. Nobody had any answers really because nobody knew what was going on and hadn’t obviously anticipated the pandemic being as bad as it was. I came straight back up to Doncaster, set up camp with my missus, and then we were locked down, because she was in a high-risk category anyway, with being pregnant. Even when they did ease the restrictions slightly, it made no difference to me really, because apart from doing the weekly shop, it was just me and my missus for a month or so.
What kind of things helped get you through, other than just being in each other’s company for those weeks?!
Yeah, if anyone knows me they know I’m quite lively, so being locked away, I probably tested her to the limit, to be honest! The fact that she was pregnant as well, I bet she wasn’t too happy with it, but the things that got me through, I was running; I got into a bit of a 5k challenge. A few of the lads were doing the same thing and we kind of got a bit of a competition. Stevenage had a really good programme, and a good fitness coach called Jon Ashton, and he had us sending home workouts into the group chat so you couldn’t dodge it. He gave us a plan that we had to complete each day on Strava, so the morning routine was pretty much get up, until 12 o’clock I was doing full exercise, either doing sprints on a field or doing a 5k etc. Other than that, I watched the Michael Jordan documentary; got addicted to that so I ended up finishing that in a couple of days. Then I had some weights that I was trying to throw about at home. Just anything really to try and keep active. When you’re used to going playing football every day, I suppose your mind’s used to being really active.
You mentioned Doncaster but where was it you grew up? Were you born in Sheffield?
Yeah, born in Sheffield, moved to Doncaster around nine or ten and been here ever since. Me and my girlfriend have got a house together in Doncaster now as well. I think we’re quite happy and settled here.
Who was your team growing up?
My dad’s a massive Sheff Wednesday fan. I was forced into that one; I’ve not had much success! If I’m watching the Premier League I’ll take interest in the big teams and the big games, but it’s Sheff Wednesday that I’ll kind of look out for the result of.
For your time in football so far, have there been any players in particular who you’ve enjoyed a real understanding with on the pitch? Where you sense each other’s movements etc. and can work really well off each other.
Since being at Harrogate, I’d say I’ve played my best football there, and I was left-wing for a long spell, and Ben Parker was left-back. We worked really well; I was kind of left to do what I wanted to do in the attacking sense, and if I didn’t need to defend, he didn’t ask me to defend, which is quite unusual for full-backs. Ben was very good at ‘save your energy, you stay up there. I’m alright one-v-one, when I get it, I’ll pass it to you.’ I’d say Ben is definitely one of the best players I’ve played with as well. Great lad, and because we were so friendly off the pitch, I think it just worked.
There’s obviously lads at Harrogate you’re good friends with, who are some of the standout characters from your time in the game so far?
The lads at Harrogate, there’s a bit of a group; we are the jokers and we probably do the gaffer’s head in a bit, because we’re a bit too loud in the changing room and stuff! That definitely is Mark Beck, Jack Muldoon, Lloyd Kerry and James Belshaw. Those two are my car school, when we’re allowed to share, obviously before COVID-19. We had a great time, always having a laugh, and I’ve been in a car school with Lloyd now for the last four or five years, and he’s a bit like family. So, really enjoyed their company. When I was at Stockport, really got on with Ash Palmer; one of the nicest guys in football, a really top guy and a fantastic player. Then at Stevenage, a crazy, wild one, Paul Farman; absolute gem of a person, loudest in the dressing room and on the pitch. Does some questionable things in the changing room! But a very funny character.
— James Belshaw (@jbelly31) August 4, 2019
When you were most recently with Harrogate, was there a team DJ?
Team DJ is actually Paul Thirlwell, assistant manager. Going back to the start of the season, and certainly last season, at the end of the game, when we’d get a result on the road, Thirs would come up the bus with his little boombox and sit at the back with the lads.
You’ve enjoyed some really good form over recent years, but thinking of your whole time in football up to now, what would you say the approach that gets the best out of you from a manager is?
I think sometimes when you’re playing well, you’re best to be just left alone. I think Simon Weaver does that really well. I think he understands when you need a bit of a kick up the backside, but I think he understands when you’re doing well. The Conference North season, I had a really good season, and I think he understood ‘he’s doing well, he doesn’t need to be told every two seconds that he needs to be here, there and everywhere.’ I’ve also worked under some managers who aren’t as easy-going, a bit more demanding, but I think for me personally as a character, I need sometimes an arm around the shoulder, but I need that kick sometimes so I don’t get complacent. You’re only at the Conference level so you’ve got to realise you’re nowhere near what some of the other levels are, and so you do need that little reminder. I think these last couple of loans have made me a better person for that, because when you’re at a club for so long, you can become a little bit complacent, a little bit too familiar with your surroundings. Going to Stockport with Jim Gannon, and Stevenage with Graham Westley, Alex Revell, Mark Sampson, I think it definitely brought out some qualities in me as a person that I didn’t think I had. With coming to be 26 now, it’s happened to me at the perfect time, because it’s just made me a bit more mature, and I think it’s added stuff to my game that wasn’t there before.
Lastly, what else comes into play for you in terms of interests, when you’re not playing, training, recovering etc.?
Before I went into full-time football, I was a football coach. I got my UEFA B licence really young and I wanted to go on my A Licence before football came about and kind of stalled it. Definitely love coaching, love being around it. I’m helping Doncaster Rovers out as of next season, just doing odd nights wherever I can so that when full-time football does stop, I’m in a good place to go back to coaching. I love golf; I’ve tried to play once or twice a week with a group that are all mad for it as well. So if I’ve got any spare time in an evening and there’s some coaching that needs to be done, I’ll try to help out wherever I can.
Interview by @chris_brookes